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Likability is the Name of the Game: Cultural Matching and Homogeneity in the Workplace

The curtain of 2014 summer internship recruitment has just closed … or not, for those who have not finalized their summer plans yet. While some students can’t wait to boast about their multiple offers from bulge bracket investment banks or top-tier consulting firms, others might have to settle for offers from less known firms or startups. It is clear that prestigious career opportunities such as investment banking and consulting are extremely competitive, and even the most qualified candidates face an uphill battle during internship and full-time recruitment seasons. In such a pre-professional school as Northwestern, it is not uncommon that groups of students with similar career goals would gather, practice, and prepare for interviews as if they were the SATs. Particularly, lots of students reported that they would have a handful of well-crafted and well-rehearsed anecdotes and/or answers in the bag for “fit” questions prior to interviews. Clearly, students have taken note of the important role that cultural matching is playing in the hiring process.

To scientifically investigate the less obvious mechanisms at play in recruitment, specifically in campus recruitment, Professor Lauren Rivera at Kellogg School of Management conducted empirical case studies at various top-tier firms in law, consulting, and investment banking. Rivera shadowed numerous interviewers and sat in interviews as well as resume screens. Rivera’s study is particularly insightful as she exclusively focused on campus recruitment at top-tier firms in the most prestigious industries.

The reason is that undergraduates usually find their first jobs out of college through campus recruitment. Not to imply that graduates’ first jobs define their career trajectories, but it is safe to say that a well-paid job in a big firm is a smooth start for a young professional and it could easily translate into higher socioeconomic status later in his/her career. In other words, hiring practice in campus recruitment might shed light on socioeconomic inequalities and occupational disparities on a broader level. The implications of hiring practice in top-tier firms in prestigious industries are thus particularly impactful and enduring.

Also, as Rivera was looking from the other side of the fence – from the interviewers’ and employers’ perspective – she shed light on some non-market, or supply and demand, mechanisms and psychology at play in the hiring process, which can be helpful for students to better position themselves and prepare for the battle.

According to Rivera, although top-tier firms favor candidates with strong academic background, it is cultural matching that finally gets them hired. In other words, to interviewers, cultural matching matters far more than the candidate’s actual competence. In fact, most recruiters and interviewers simply assume that the candidates have the necessary technical skills if they are attending well-credited universities. “If you go to Harvard, you know how to do math (Rivera, 2011).”

Another reason why actual competence is less of a priority to recruiters is that most of what top-tier firms do “is not rocket science,” and new hires would be put through extensive training sessions where they would be equipped with all the necessary technical skills (Rivera, 2012). Furthermore, students from prestigious universities usually have very similar credentials. In fact, if one were to pull out a dozen of resumes from Northwestern CareerCat, one would very likely see equivalent majors, GPAs, extracurricular activities, leadership experiences, and past internships.As a result, candidates’ competence levels are virtually indistinguishable on paper.

Finally, recruiters in Rivera’s study used the time-intensive nature of the jobs to legitimize them prioritizing cultural matching. It is very common that employees in top-tiers firms spend long hours with coworkers in the office or on the road, and being around culturally fitting people would at least make the jobs less intolerable for the employees (Rivera, 2012).

So what actually constitutes cultural matching and what are the criteria that recruiters use to judge whether a candidate is a cultural fit? According to Rivera, cultural matching is essentially cultural similarities, reflected in educational background, self-presentation styles, ways to spend leisure time, hobbies outside of work, etc. That is to say, the fate of candidates with similar credentials in the competition for elite jobs would be linked to their display of cultural signals, and these cultural signals can directly and implicitly, maybe even unconsciously, translate into the candidates’ likability to recruiters (Rivera, 2012).

In fact, the importance of cultural matching is even more salient in the most prestigious investment banks and consulting firms. For instance, PwC, a top-tier consulting firm, is known for its fit/behavioral interview style, regardless of divisions and experience level. When coming back from an interview, interviewers would simply report, “I like/don’t like this candidate,” according to Rivera’s study.

On the surface, liking people that are culturally similar to oneself seems to be a forgivable and reasonable human nature, but such a mentality in the hiring process can very likely lead to preferential hiring and create unfair barriers to other candidates who do not fall in the “likeable” categories. According to an article on Bloomberg by Abelson and Faux, “Secret Handshakes Greet Frat Brothers on Wall Street,” there is apparently a fraternity pipeline on Wall Street, channeling graduating fraternity members into prominent investment banks via alumni networks.

The article explicitly stated that members of certain fraternities enjoy unfair advantages of getting contact information, being put on the top of the candidate pool, and getting exclusive informal networking opportunities. Also, this system severely hurts other groups of candidates, especially women who are not included in the Wall Street brotherhood or do not have the same potential to be good “drinking buddies” (Abelson & Faux, 2013). As a result, there is a significant gender disparity on Wall Street, with only approximately one woman hired for every four men.

Unsurprisingly, it is even more problematic at the top executive level, as no woman has yet run a big bank (Abelson & Faux, 2013). Therefore, rather than a forgivable natural inclination, hiring candidates with higher level of cultural similarities effectively creates a structural mechanism that stops women and other perfectly well-qualified candidates from entering highly prestigious and well-paid industries, which subsequently contributes to more salient socioeconomic stratification across demographic.

Additional to creating unfair career barriers for individual candidates, cultural homogeneity, or lack of diversity can be harmful to the organization itself as well. According to a respectable research institute, Catalyst, Fortune 500 companies with higher degree of gender diversity attained significantly better financial performance, whereas those with lower representation of women on managerial positions have poor returns (Catalyst, 2004). In other words, recruiters or gatekeepers of top-tiers firms could be limiting their firms’ potential when going for a high degree of cultural homogeneity in the hiring process.

Although a number of top-tier consulting firms and investment banks have initiated diversity programs, such as “Winning Women”, to encourage female students into traditionally male dominant industries, their achievement is limited without structurally correcting or mitigating their preferential hiring for cultural matching candidates, according to Abelson and Faux’s report. While it is true that women and minorities can also take advantage of cultural matching; they can very well stand out if they fit into the organizations’ cultural criteria. However, as these cultural criteria are clearly designed for upper class males, cultural matching is still more of a hurdle than an opportunity to women and minorities. Otherwise, women would have filled half of the seats on Wall Street and top-tier consulting and law firms, which is apparently not the case right now.

While cultural matching hiring practice indeed has its merits and practicality, such as creating a more harmonious workplace, it is clear that such practices have some negative implications that need to be rectified, including creating unfair career barriers for qualified candidates and leading to lack of cultural diversity in the workplace. Perhaps the biggest frustration a student can experience through the recruitment process is the feeling of not being rewarded what he/she deserves. It is a shame to see talents being undervalued due to the lack of cultural matching.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

References:

Abelson, Max, and Zeke Faux. “Secret handshakes Greet Frat Brothers on Wall Street.” Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, 22 Dec. 2013. Web. 12 May 2014

 

Butler, Susan Bulkeley. “Time for Action on Gender Equality on Corporate Boards.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 26 Apr. 2013. Web. 12 May 2014

 

Lu, Yiren. “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem.” The New York Times. They New York Times, 15 Mar. 2014. Web. 12 May 2014.

 

Rivera, L. A. “Hiring as Cultural Matching: The Case of Elite Professional Service Firms.” American Sociological Review 77.6 (2012): 999-1022. Print.

 

Rivera, L. A. “Ivies, Extracurriculars, and Exclusion: Elite Employers’ Use of Educational Credentials.” Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 29.1 (2011): 71-90. Print.

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